LEMON BLUEBERRY SCONES

What do you do when a complete stranger offers to donate wonderful, healthy breast milk for your son?  Apparently, what I do is bake scones.

I know this topic is going to freak some people out, but part of my commitment to this blog is to always tell the truth about whatever’s going on with me and in my life, and right now, breast milk is one of those things.  If you’re just here for scones, feel free to skip straight to the recipe.

You see—and most people don’t even know this is possible—I’m producing breast milk of my own.  It’s something we adoptive moms can sometimes do, with a little luck and a lot of work (Google “inducing lactation” if you’re curious about details), and I’ve been thrilled to have some success with it.  To be able to feed my son from my own body is an incredible feeling.

Still, like many moms, adoptive or not, I’m not making enough milk just yet, so we are supplementing with a little fancy organic formula and a LOT of donated breast milk.  Truly, it has been a dazzling wonder the way that women have offered up such a precious resource for our family.  In case you thought that such unconditional generosity didn’t exist anymore, I’m here to tell you that it does.

And since there’s no real repaying kindnesses like these, I just make scones instead, sneaking a few for myself because nursing makes a girl h-u-n-g-r-y!  Our little man will be a month old tomorrow, and it’s hard to imagine life before he came…not that I would want to.

LEMON BLUEBERRY SCONE RECIPE

(adapted from La Petite Brioche)

Blueberries are fat and delicious right now around these parts, and I hope you can get your hands on some luscious ones, too, and make this recipe, or just eat them out of hand.

Grating and the freezing the butter may seem weird, but it’s key—don’t skip that step.  If you don’t have a box grater, you can dice the butter instead.

ingredients:

2 cups all-purpose flour*
½ cup sugar
2 T lemon zest
1 T baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1 cup fresh blueberries
½ cup unsalted butter, grated with a cheese grater and frozen for 10-15 minutes
¾ cup cold heavy cream or whole milk, plus a little extra for brushing the tops
turbinado/raw sugar for sprinkling the tops of the scones

oven: 400° F
pan: parchment-lined baking sheets

*I made my last batch with half white whole-wheat flour and half all-purpose flour, and really liked the “tooth” the white whole-wheat flour added.

Sift the flour, sugar, baking powder, & salt into a large mixing bowl.  Stir in the zest and the frozen butter, breaking up any butter clumps.  Pour in the milk/heavy cream and fold until just incorporated, then add the blueberries and mix gently.  The scone mixture should be sticky, so add more liquid if needed.

Turn the mixture out onto a well-floured surface and sprinkle a bit more flour on top of the mound of scone dough.  Using your hands, gently press until the dough is a somewhat uniform thickness of 1”.  Fold the scone mixture in on itself in thirds, like a letter, pressing back out again to a thickness of 1”.

Using a knife or bench scraper, cut the scones into rough triangle shapes and lay them out, several inches apart, on the baking sheets.  Brush their tops with milk or cream and then sprinkle with raw sugar.

Bake the scones for approximately 20 minutes, or until golden brown and firm to the touch.  Cool on racks before serving warm, with plenty of butter.

ORANGE POLENTA CAKE

You know what?  I am never going to be less than a size 10.  I am never going to not want to sing along to a Disney musical if in its presence.  I am always going to feel the need to plan things, to be obsessive and make lists, to send out texts and emails, “Hey do you want to…?”

I will procrastinate by cooking.  I will cope by eating things that I find delicious.  I will never be able to skip more than two days in a row at the gym because I am addicted to endorphins.  I will start books (particularly “thinky” non-fiction books) that I feel like I “ought to” read and never finish them, opting for really addictive, well-written fiction instead.  I will feel slightly guilty about this, and about the fact that sometimes I listen to music in the mornings on the way to work instead of NPR, but not guilty enough to stop.  I will go weeks without writing and when I finally set aside time to do so, I will think “Why don’t I do this more often?”

Every once in a while, I will snap at Jill for something that totally isn’t even her fault. I won’t call my mother as often as I probably should.  I will tell people “I love you” more times than is necessary, in ways that they’re not sure how to respond to, but that won’t stop me.  Sometimes I may pretend to be asleep when the dog needs to go out in the middle of the night.

If you ask, I’m going to tell it like it is.  (I may do that even if you don’t ask).  I’m going to save bacon fat in a jar in the fridge & then fry eggs in it, I’m going to flirt with good looking waiters, I’m going to lust after unnecessary shoes, I will probably always be a little bit vain, and I am never going to not want dessert.

The end.

ORANGE POLENTA CAKE
adapted from Bon Appetit

I love the texture that polenta brings to sweets; the pairing with orange is classically Italian, though this cake is more like a pound cake than anything else.  The original recipe calls for plums & blackberries to be served alongside, but I stuck to just the latter.  I also substituted good old-fashioned whipped cream for the more high-maintenance (though delicious sounding) buttermilk ice cream suggested.

ingredients:

1 ¼ cups flour
¾ medium-grind polenta
1 ½ tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
1 cup + 2 T sugar
1 cup unsalted butter at room temperature
finely grated zest of 1 orange
4 eggs, room temperature
1 tsp. vanilla extract
½ cup plain yogurt (preferably whole milk)

oven: 350°
pan: 9x5x3-inch loaf pan, buttered & floured

Whisk the dry ingredients together and set aside.  In a separate bowl, beat the sugar, butter, & zest together until fluffy, then add the eggs one at a time, scraping down the sides of the bowl and blending well after each addition.  Beat in the vanilla.

Alternately add the dry ingredients and the yogurt, starting & ending with the dry ingredients.  Mix until just combined, then pour the batter into the loaf pan and smooth the top.

Bake until the cake is golden and a cake tester or toothpick comes out clean or with dry crumbs clinging to it.  This may take anywhere from 50 minutes to 1 hour & 15 minutes, depending on your oven.  Cool the cake on a rack in the pan before running a knife around the edges and inverting the cake.

Serve with blackberries tossed with a little sugar & vanilla extract and some homemade whipped cream or ice cream.
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MEYER LEMON THUMBPRINTS

Moment of truth: I’m all burnt out on holiday baking.

A giant cookie-and-other-treat-extravaganza has been part of my regular December schedule since I was a girl.  Once school let out for Christmas break, my mom would take off of work and we’d dedicate two full days to baking.

That time of kitchen apprenticeship is really, I think, what started this whole train a-runnin’.  Not only did I learn from my mother (about timing, planning, coordination of baking sheets and oven space, how to fill muffin tins just so, how to substitute one sugar for another, how to gently work a cream cheese dough), but I also became committed to the spirit of that baking, done as a way of sharing with and contributing to the ones we loved, used as an excuse for my mom and me to be together in the kitchen for two whole days.

I’m still committed to that spirit, of course; I thoroughly appreciate the ritual and legacy that those days, and my subsequent continuation of them through graduate school and into my home life with Jill, have created.  But, you know what?  I’m kinda tired.  And I realized that I was dreading, instead of joyfully looking forward to, my annual holiday baking project.  So this year, I’m not doing it.

What’s hilarious is that, a few weekends ago, I did a “blog day” full of cookies in anticipation of sharing with all of you some favorite recipes for baking and sharing this time of year.  I’m still going to share them, of course, over the next two weeks, and I’ve listed below the already myriad cookie recipes contained elsewhere on this blog.  And please don’t think that my “opt-out” is a judgment on those who will bake this year—far from it.

In fact, I hope you WILL bake this year, in your tiny cramped apartment, in your beautiful, house-of-my-dreams kitchen, with your children, with your best friend, with your parent, or all alone.  I hope it makes your house smell fantastic and your heart feel full.

As for me, this is my year to sit back and watch.  Somehow I let a ritual become an obligation in my mind, something I felt I was compelled to do, that I felt others would expect me to do, that I felt I needed to do in order to please others or because it’s what I’ve always done.  Instead I’m taking a leap of faith (seems appropriate for the season, doesn’t it?) and trusting that the people in my life are in it for more than just the baked goods.

MEYER LEMON THUMBPRINT COOKIES

Winter is a glorious time for citrus down here in South Texas; I found some local Meyer lemons at the Farmers’ Market a few weeks ago and couldn’t resist their perfume.  For the filling, I made a quick blackberry jam, but you could easily use store bought and/or swap in another flavor.

for the dough:

2 ¼ cups flour
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
½ cup sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
zest of 1 Meyer lemon
pinch of salt

oven: 350˚

Line two baking sheets with parchment.

In the stand bowl of a mixer, cream the butter, sugar, and zest together.  Add the eggs one at a time, then the vanilla.  Fold in the flour & salt until the mixture forms a soft dough.  Shape into a disk, cover in plastic, and refrigerate for thirty minutes.

Remove the dough from the fridge and roll into 1-inch balls.  Place each one on a cookie sheet, leaving room for the cookies to flatten a bit.  Using your thumb, press gently into the center of each dough ball, then spoon some jam into the indentations.

Bake the cookies for 15-20 minutes or until the centers seem set and the surrounding dough solid.  Cool on racks before serving or storing in an airtight container.

for the jam:

1 pint blackberries, rinsed
¾-1 cup sugar, depending on your taste
juice of one lemon

In a nonstick saucepot, stir the ingredients together and bring the mixture to a bubble.  Cook for about fifteen minutes, or until the mixture starts to thicken and pull together (it will continue to thicken as it cools, so you still want it to be somewhat loose  & stir-able).

Transfer to a glass jar or other heatproof container & allow the jam to come to room temperature before using it in this or another recipe.  Store any leftovers in the fridge.

BAKE AWAY, MY FRIENDS:

alfajores

almond-coconut bars

cardamom shortbread cookies

chewy amaretti cookies

molasses cookies

peanut butter/almond butter cookies

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ALMOND-ORANGE TEA CAKES

I’d like to make an exhortation, if you’ll indulge me.

Go have the conversation nobody wants to have; talk to the people in your life about how you do and do not want to die.  Get them to do the same for you.  Be clear, even if it’s painful.  Put it in writing and get that writing notarized.  Make sure everyone knows where the papers are.  Please.  Do it right now.

These things are hard to think about, or talk about, or plan for.  But I speak from experience when I say that they are among the greatest gifts you can give your family, even as you vehemently hope they will never have to use them.  Because four years ago, I did.

I miss my dad; I don’t think that’s ever going away.  But I also know that my mother and I were able to make the medical decisions that he would have wanted us to make.  We did not have to guess, or wonder.  And while there is much else painful about the way I lost my dad, that certainty is a clear patch of bright relief.

So there you have it—the only piece of advice I’ll ever dispense on this blog.  It is what seemed right, more than anything else, on this day.

Subhash Chander Mehra
April 27, 1942 – July 22, 2006


ALMOND ORANGE TEA CAKES

adapted from a recipe I clipped from Martha Stewart Living years ago

This may have been my dad’s favorite thing that I make.  These little cakes are decadent (hello butter!), a little fussy (you can omit the candied orange peel, but I wouldn’t), and go perfectly with a cup of tea, all qualities my dad valued.

1 2/3 cup powdered sugar, plus more for garnish
1 cup almonds, toasted
¾ cup unsalted butter, melted
½ cup flour
6 egg whites, slightly beaten
zest of 2 oranges, chopped fine
1 T orange blossom water, also called orange flower water (optional)
¼ tsp. salt

oven: 450˚
pans: mini loaf pans or ramekins, buttered & stored in the freezer

Grind the almonds to a near-paste in the food processor.  Turn out into a large bowl, then stir in powdered sugar, flour, salt, & zest.  Whisk in egg whites, then slowly stir in the melted butter and orange blossom water (if using).

Pour batter into pans, then place on a baking sheet for easy transfer.  Bake until the dough just begins to rise, about ten minutes.  Reduce the oven to 400˚ and continue to bake another 8-10 minutes or until the cakes brown.  Turn the oven off but leave the cakes in for another 10 minutes.  (I know this seems like a crazy method, but it works. Trust me.)

Cool the cakes on a rack, then turn out and serve warm or at room temperature, with a dusting of powdered sugar and/or strips of candied orange peel (recipe follows).

CANDIED ORANGE PEEL

zest of 3-4 oranges
sugar
water

Cover the zest with water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil.  Once boiling, drain the zest in a colander and repeat the boiling process.  Do this a total of three times, to remove the bitterness from the pith.

Rise out the saucepan, then add 1 ½ cups of water and 1 cup of sugar.  Bring to a boil, letting the sugar dissolve to make a simple syrup.  Add the zest and let the strips of orange simmer in the syrup until they become translucent.

Cool, then store the zest in the fridge, with or without the syrup.  I like to use the latter in cocktails, especially margaritas or Cosmopolitans.

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LEMON SQUARES

If I believed in super-long blog post titles, this one would be “LEMON SQUARES: HOW TO WIN FRIENDS & INFLUENCE PEOPLE.”

lemon squares
For realz.

When I was in graduate school (in the achingly gorgeous desert land of Tucson, Arizona), I had a nonfiction writing workshop once a week.  Every week.  For two years.

Of those Lord-knows-how-many workshops, I estimate that I brought baked goods to class seventy-five percent of the time.  And of those times that I brought baked good to class, lemon squares took up a disproportionately large share.

I became famous for my lemon squares.  Their presence was often (and still is!) requested at workshops, parties, meetings, as presents, etc.  I can’t prove that it’s true, but I believe my lemon squares won me some goodwill with colleagues who might have otherwise written more scathing critiques of my manuscripts or been all-to-eager to shred my narratives to pieces.

Now, you may want to know, what is my lemon square secret?  What mystery ingredient have I conjured to take these humble little shortbread-crust-bottomed, custard-and-powdered-sugar-topped suckers to the next level of deliciousness?

Well, nothing, really.  Mine is a really basic recipe, one that my hands will practically make for me at this point.  There’s nothing particularly magical about them, but they’ve never failed me.  Perhaps it comes down to this: the gesture of baking something from scratch, of feeding others something you took time to make with your own hands, and make well, is magical.  It breeds relatedness and good feeling.  It’s just a kind thing to do.  (Especially in grad school, when everyone’s poor & hungry).

So, even though these are not red, white, & blue; even though they do not utilize the plump berries and sugar-crystalled watermelon of the season, I humbly offer you my lemon square recipe and urge you to bake some up.  Walk a plate over to your neighbors.  Take some to work on Monday (when everyone will be grumpy about having to be back at work on Monday).  Or just add them to the Fourth of July potluck pile and watch them disappear.

ARIZONA LEMON SQUARES lemon squares up close
makes 16 modest or 9 generous squares

oven: Preheat to 350.

pan: 8 inch square (double recipe to fit into larger, rectangular pan)

To make your life easier, line the pan with foil and then spray it well with cooking spray.  You can just spray the pan, but you’ll have to scrub it afterwards.

crust:    1 ½ cup flour

½ cup (1 stick) butter, softened

¼ cup powdered (confectioner’s) sugar

I always throw these ingredients straight into the pan and crumble them with my fingers—no need to mess up a bowl!  When you’ve got a pebbly-looking mixture, press down so the crust covers the bottom of the pan and a little bit up the sides.  Smooth down with the bottom of a small glass or bowl, if you like.

Bake the crust for 15-20 minutes, or until it’s just getting brown.  While the crust is baking, make the filling.

filling:    2 eggs  sliced lemons
2 lemons*
1 cup sugar
½ tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt

Zest the lemons first (I like a lot of zest, so I use both), then chop the zest finely and set aside.  Juice the lemons next—you’ll may only need one lemon to reach the desired 2 T.  Add juice to zest.  Throw in the rest of the ingredients, adding the eggs last.

Beat everything together either with a whisk or a mixer (I’ve done both, and this is really one recipe where you don’t have to get your Kitchen Aid dirty).  Mix until everything’s frothy and thick, about 3 minutes.

When the hot crust comes out of the oven, pour the filling on top.  Bake another 20-25 minutes or until the top is just turning brown and is set in the middle.  Cool on a wire rack for about 5 minutes, then dust with a generous amount of powdered sugar (sometimes I do two passes with the powdered sugar to get a thick layer).

Cool completely, or as long as you can wait before cutting into squares.

* When I can find them, I use Meyer lemons, which make for exquisite lemon squares.  Just dial down the sugar to ¾ or even ½ cup, since Meyer lemons are not as tart.

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SUMMER CLASSICS SERIES: KEY LIME PIE

Please forgive me if this post is a bit lacking in wit and zest (get it?  zest?  key lime pie?  ha! I crack myself up)—school is out for summer, my grading is all done, and I’ve been busy celebrating the start of vacation with Arianne, my BFFFL (that’s Best Friend Forever for Life to those of you unfamiliar with 6th grade girl lingo).

So I’m afraid I don’t have a super-clever story to tie in here, just the fact that Arianne really loves my key lime pie.  And key lime pie is a summer classic, so it’s therefore being included in our Summer Classics Series (see how that works?)

545717631_dsc_0275

Well, I lied.  I actually do have kind of a cool story to tell you.  As you probably know, sweetened condensed milk is a traditional ingredient in key lime pie.  But what you may not know is how condensed milk came to be.

In 1856, Gail Borden (of Borden’s Eagle Brand) developed the process by which milk could be condensed, and thereby safely stored, in cans for long periods of time.  Until that point, cow’s milk was basically only safe to store for a few hours without cooling or refrigeration.

Mr. Borden was inspired to create a long-term storage method for milk after traveling to the United States on a ship from England; due to the poor quality of milk onboard, several children lost their lives.  The introduction of condensed milk is credited with being an important factor in reducing the infant mortality rate in the United States.

Not too shabby, right?  Three cheers for Mr. Borden!  He (and this story) are the reason I am doggedly brand-loyal when it comes to my sweetened condensed milk (and no, they’re not paying me to say that.)

Whatever brand you buy, I recommend you get yourself some sweetened condensed milk and make a key lime pie.  It tastes exactly the way summer should.

KEY LIME PIE
Serves 8-10, or just me & Arianne

I promise that going through the effort of juicing your own limes (and key limes, at that) is so very worth it for this pie.  This time of year, little mesh bags of key limes (also sometimes called Persian limes) are available pretty cheaply, and their fragrance & taste are just on a whole different level.

To get maximum juice out of each lime, I recommend microwaving the limes in a bowl for about thirty seconds and then rolling them on the counter before slicing them open.  If you have leftover lime juice, might I suggest you make some margaritas?

For the crust: 545719496_dsc_0285

1 ½ cup graham cracker crumbs
(store bought works, but the homemade kind tends not to resemble sawdust as much)

6 T butter, melted

¼ cup sugar (double if you want a sweet crust)

pan: 9-inch pie pan
oven: 350

Combine above ingredients—if making your own graham cracker crumbs, you can mix everything in the food processor.  Otherwise, a bowl & spoon should work!  Press mixture into the pan, being sure to move up the sides.  Bake crust for 5-8 minutes, until you smell its graham crackery-goodness all over your kitchen.  Be sure not to over bake as the crust can easily turn dark.

546963985_dsc_0112

For the filling:

1 can (14 oz.) sweetened condensed milk

3 egg yolks

2/3 cup key lime juice

zest of 2-3 limes (2 T), finely chopped

Beat the yolks and zest in the bowl of a stand mixer for a few minutes on high speed until the yolks lighten in color and texture.  Pour in condensed milk slowly and continue mixing at high speed—the mixture should thicken quickly.  Lower the speed to add the lime juice, mixing slowly until just combined.

Pour filling into the crust, lick the spatula (optional), and bake the pie for 8-10 minutes.  You want the filling to set—that means no jiggling in the middle when you give the pan a shake.  Cool completely on a wire rack, then refrigerate.

I like to throw my key lime pie in the freezer for about 15-20 minutes before I plan to serve it.  Yummy!  Like so many desserts, this one is especially good with homemade whipped cream.

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